Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam, India

Six days inside an Indian Ashram

Life in an Ashram is very hard work. Far from my notions of endless leisure time in relaxed bliss, what I found at the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyar Dam was a gruelling (and compulsory) 16-hour daily schedule involving three hours of meditation and chanting, four hours of yoga and one hour of hard labour carried out on two uninspiring vegetarian meals a day ate in silence, on the floor with your right hand. Spiritual enlightenment, it seems, is not for the feint hearted.

Spiritual enlightenment is not for the feint hearted

Thus the Eastern tradition is very much in line with the austere Christian Catholic regimes of Europe, with physical deprivation and bodily mastery the keys thought to unlock the door to heaven/Nirvana/enlightenment etc. Again, like the Priesthood, this includes sexual abstinence, or Brahmacharya yoga – as it is called in this tradition. This is reflected in the rules of the Ashram, where sex and all of its familiars – flirting, touching between the sexes and even the exposure of knees and shoulders or the wearing of tight clothing are strictly forbidden.

The latter was a particular inconvenience for asanas (or yoga postures), for which Lycra makes the perfect partner, but which instead we performed in restrictive baggy pants and t-shirts, melting in the 35 degree Keralan heat. Many opted for the school uniform of white bottoms and yellow t-shirts worn by the yoga teacher trainees and which could be purchased for a reasonable sum in the Ashram boutique (though only between the hours of 11am and 1 and again 6.45 and 7.30pm – our daily ‘free time’). I succumbed to my inner child and am now the owner of a white and orange ‘Om mantra’ tee that I suspect will never again see the light of day.

Despite these deprivations, however (or perhaps because of them), the Sivananda Ashram is a peaceful and inspiring space largely full of well meaning and friendly people that are dedicated to serving the weary travellers that roll through its doors. While everything on the schedule (see below) is in theory compulsory, only the morning and evening satsang’s (meditation and chanting) are enforced, with wardens sweeping the dorms and booking truants. However, lateness is not punished and occasionally you can get away with skipping one or two.

The lake’s iridescent, ghostly-still surface is a divine presence

The setting is also stunning. About an hour’s drive from Kerala’s capital city Trivandrum (or its new, unpronounceable and largely ignored name Thiruvananthapuram), the Ashram is directly by the lake that is the result or source of Neyyar Dam, and which is unfathomably clean. Though its surrounds are lined with the customary piles of plastic rubbish that blight every inch of India, the lake’s iridescent, ghostly-still surface is a divine presence. One morning we took a silent walk there, where the sun rising over the adjacent mountains illuminated the slow moving mist on the water, providing perhaps the only spiritual vision any woman needs.

The sense of bonhomie that grows among the Ashram community is also deeply nourishing. Many of us westerners had some tragedy we were seeking healing for – grief, addiction and depression chief among them – and our shared adversity bred genuine warmth. For some, though, the daily doctrine was too much. One English visitor fresh from a suicide attempt and still struggling with alcohol and drugs, found one lecture on faith so offensive he caused quite the scene at reception, demanding a refund before storming out. For the many Indian and (interestingly) Japanese trainees at the Ashram, its daily austerity, devotion, dogma and discipline is no great shakes, but for Westerners bred on total personal liberty and atheism, I think only those processing pain or harbouring deep doubts make the journey.

Interestingly, however, the one Indian I did meet that was not on the teacher training course was also skeptical. Ipri*, an inquisitive maths teacher from Uttar Pradesh on a grand tour of his home country, was most disturbed by the mainly white western directors of the Ashram. He also found some of the chants ridiculous – particularly the one praising Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Allah in one happy maelstrom. Of India’s lower caste, he said he and his family had traditionally not practiced yoga or yogic philosophy (this was for the ‘royals’/ Rajputs) but he was fairly sure this wasn’t it.

For some the daily doctrine was too much

Ultimately, what you take from the Ashram may depend on how much you need from it, and almost certainly how open and willing you are to accept its terms. I spent six days here and I bounced from initial charm to rejection back to charm and indeed found myself even enjoying the Hari Krishna chants by the last day. I also made it halfway to a headstand – a personal triumph after years of yoga practice – and met some unforgettable people. Had I not been concurrently battling a health issue that required frequent visits to the city hospital (details coming up), I may have stayed for the full two-week yoga program. This, I think, really would have been a personal victory.

Sivananda Ashram Neyyar Dam Daily Schedule:

  • 05.30, First Bell
  • 06.00 – 7.30, Satsang: mediation and chanting (compulsory)
  • 08.00 – 10.00, Yoga asana class (compulsory)
  • 10.10, Brunch
  • 10.30 – 13.30 Free time (for many this involves a visit to the local tea stall for contraband items like coffee and cigarettes and/or a visit to the lake)

OR you can come back early at midday for meditation or yoga asana coaching

  • 14.00, Spiritual Lecture (compulsory)
  • 15.30 – 17.30, Yoga asana class (compulsory)
  • 18.00, Dinner
  • 20.00 – 21.30, Satsang: meditation and chanting (compulsory)
  • 10.30, Lights Out

Plus one hour of ‘karma yoga’ in which you clean, serve food, man the shop etc. Usually during your free time (unless serving food).

Friday is a day off – you can skip everything in between morning and evening Satsangs 

Author: Rebecca E Jones

Journalist, nomad, cultural magpie. An inveterate Londoner, in 2016 I embarked on a year of travel through South Africa, India and South East Asia that changed the way I see the world and its inhabitants - especially myself. Here I share what I learned - and continue to learn - through my journey.

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